In an exclusive interview about the tequila-cocaine-assault binge that put him in jail, the star of “Very bad things” tries to put things right.
December 10, 1998
By Lawrence Grobel
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Four years ago, Christian Slater told me that he believed he had a magical life. This was after he had replaced River Phoenix in Interview With the Vampire and co-starred with Kevin Bacon in Murder in the First and before his first smash action film, John Woo's Broken Arrow, with John Travolta. He had that Jack Nicholson grin on his face when he said it, but then he added, "Who knows, I may be heading for some huge crash."
Not long after, on December 23rd, 1994, Slater was detained by New York police after a Baretta pistol was found in his luggage at JFK Airport. Then his girlfriend of five years, Nina Huang, sued him for palimony (the matter was settled out of court). These were just preliminaries to the true crash, which came on August 11th, 1997. That's when Slater went to an apartment in Los Angeles. Present were Petra Brando, Marlon Brando's daughter; her date, Jacques Petersen; and their friend, Michelle Jonas, whom Slater knew. Slater got a little crazy, drinking tequila and snorting cocaine until the cops were called; he wound up in the slammer. The police told him that he had attacked Jonas and punched her repeatedly in the face, bitten Petersen on the chest when he stepped in to help, kicked a janitor in the stomach and then, when the police arrived, attacked an officer in the stairwell and tried to grab his gun.
Slater remembered nothing of the event but knew, if this was true, that he was headed for rehab once again. (He had been in trouble twice for drunken driving, in 1988 and 1989, the second time involving a West Hollywood car chase in which he wound up kicking a cop in the head as he attempted to scale a fence after driving down a dead-end alley.)
Slater repeats that he had no clear memory of the incident - re-enacted on E! Entertainment in its one-hour E! True Hollywood Story docudrama on Slater - in which he allegedly attacked Michelle Jonas. But it didn't really matter: The damage was done. Slater was out of control, and on December 9th, 1997, he was sentenced to ninety days at the La Verne city jail. On January 14th, 1998, the day after he attended the premiere for Hard Rain, the disaster film in which he co-starred with Minnie Driver and Morgan Freeman, Slater left his home in the Hollywood Hills for a jail cell. Photos of Slater washing police cars began appearing soon after his incarceration, which lasted for fifty-nine days; he was released early for good behavior.
Slater, 29, has his side of the story to tell, but until now he has kept silent, entering a twelve-step rehab program for his addictions. Slater has revived his career by starring on Broadway in Side Man and by co-executive-producing and costarring with Cameron Diaz in his twenty-ninth movie, Very Bad Things, an apt title for what has been happening to the actor since he began keeping a journal four years ago, when his life was still magical.
What the hell were you thinking?
You sound like Jay Leno. Well, where do I begin? I was born! The rest has all unfolded. It's the difference between doing things my way and God's way.
What is God's way?
God's way is anything that starts out hard and gets easier. My way is things that start out easy and get more difficult. [Hesitates] What happened is what naturally happens to somebody who has the disease of alcoholism: hitting another bottom.
You seem to have sunk lower this last time than in your previous encounters with the law.
I can't think of any worse experience than the one I just went through. It was humiliating on a grand scale. The thing I'm sad about is that there were people there who got caught up with me hitting bottom.
How did the press handle what happened?
Man, when you have this level of insanity in your life, the press really rolls with it. I've been hurt, devastated, humiliated, ashamed, embarrassed - the whole thing. Finally I got to acceptance and surrender.
How did you handle it?
I stopped watching TV. TV is just as much of an addiction as anything else. I don't believe anything I see on TV or read in newspapers. I don't have to go out there looking for drama; I've got plenty between my ears. I've seen the lies unfold about my own life.
Let's clear up those lies. When the police arrived at the Los Angeles apartment, did you grab an officer's gun?
I don't know. I blanked on the whole thing. I went over to this place, consumed a lot of drugs and alcohol. The fight that happened was not between me and the girl at all, it was between me and this guy. After the fight, I tried to kill myself by jumping off the balcony. They pulled me back in. I made a mad dash for the door. I was trying to get out of there.
Do you remember actually trying to kill yourself?
I remember going to that apartment, walking out on the balcony on the fourteenth floor and having the thought go through my head. It scared me, and there was nobody there who I felt comfortable enough to talk about it with. I was already in an uncomfortable place. Then, once I started to imbibe, I acted on it. Not thinking clearly - not thinking at all! - having chemicals affecting my brain, I just wanted to end it. This was horrible - my night in hell. I was wiped out. Totally. Completely out of my mind.
So what did you do after that night?
I knew I had a problem. Three days later, I checked into rehab and was incommunicado. Then everything that transpired happened with the lawyers.
How easily available are drugs for you?
They’re just there. I'm not a real big-time druggie - I'm a drinkie. I always start with the drinks. I have the potential to be a guy who will hang out at a crack house, but it's also within me to be a Buddhist. It's, "Which direction will I go?" Anything that can affect me from the neck up should be cut out. If I could give up thinking, I would do that, as well. Thinking, unfortunately, is something that I have to contend with.
Do you take responsibility for what happened?
I take full ownership of the incident. I haven't shown any great character, doing drugs and alcohol. The cat's out of the bag on me, OK? I'm insane. No doubt about it. Crystal clear. I can't lie about it. I lie, I die. It's over.
What was your parents' reaction?
No parent is happy with his child getting arrested. And this wasn't my first time. I had two DUI arrests when I was nineteen, a gun arrest at the airport and then this last debacle. What I am happy about is, as a result of this it has brought everybody a lot closer together and has helped get everybody involved in the recovery process, which is exciting to me.
Your two months in jail must have been a start in that direction. What was it like?
I spent fifty-nine days of this year sitting in a cell. I was stripped of all bullshit and all labels other than trustee. Take "movie star" away, give him a vest that says TRUSTEE on it.
Go into your daily routine.
Wake up, make breakfast, lunch, dinner it was jail food, not pretty to look at. I'd prepare that stuff for prisoners they would arrest that night. Make sure the cells were clean. Mopping, sweeping, dusting, cooking, cleaning up the puke from the drunks who were in there the night before. It was disgusting. Unpleasant. Not fun. It was not cool.
Any preferential treatment from the guards?
No. I'm a criminal. I was in jail. I was doing my time. Nobody treated me any differently. Nobody cared. I was fortunate that I was given writing materials, that I could read and listen to tapes. I was a criminal among criminals.
Did you have many visitors at La Verne?
I had a lot of visitors. I was surprised, honored, glorified by some of the people who came down. I was moved and touched by a lot of the letters I received. A lot of people seemed to understand my pain more than I gave them credit for. How lost I was.
When did the feeling of being lost hit you?
I think from birth I was insecure and fear ridden and never felt comfortable in my skin. When I started drinking, at nine, I felt the warm rush of centeredness come over me. Just a real peace. And that was all I ever really wanted, just some kind of inner peace.
What were you so fear ridden about as a child?
It was just a natural state: having the fear and not knowing from where it stems. All throughout school I tried to be whatever anybody else wanted me to be. If some kid said I was rebellious, the next day I'd come in wearing a leather jacket, smoking cigarettes.
Would you describe yourself as a troubled kid?
I would describe myself as a troubled kid, as a troubled teen, as a troubled guy in his twenties. Doing his best but troubled!
What about friends - were they like you?
Have you kept in touch with any school friends?
No, I didn't hold on to any of those friends. Look at my high school life - what was I doing? Where was I the last four years of my high school experience at the Professional Children's School [in New York]? I was not around; I was away. I made four or five movies then.
Your father said it was OK to drop out of school, but do you have any regrets about not finishing high school?
I think it's important that I do graduate at some point. Just personally, to get that out of the way.
You say that all you've wanted is inner peace. Have you ever gotten that from your work?
I used to. Before I got in any trouble, I got a lot of fulfillment out of everything. I was this kid, nothing bad had happened. I felt invincible. At nineteen, I had just done Pump Up the Volume; I was on top of the world. And then I ended up crashing. That's what I do. After I crashed, I never gave myself the opportunity to learn why I crashed. I checked out of rehab after seven days. I don't know that if I had stayed there the full ninety days, anything would have been different, but I only stayed seven; I didn't get the full benefit of what that program had to offer. And I spent the next eight years feeling empty. Really unfulfilled and confused. Lost. If I'm not doing the right movie or I'm not playing the right role, I'm in that place of fear, feeling insecure.
How do you define insecurity?
The negative beast that rests between my ears tells me on a daily, sometimes moment-to-moment basis, "I suck!" True. That's just it. And when I drink or do some kind of drug or am focused on something outside of me, it anesthetizes the beast.
Do you hear the beast even after you do good work?
You mean, why aren't I beating down the beast with my own accolades? My own achievements? Because the achievements are coming from the outside; I've still got the voice inside telling me I suck.
Have you ever felt like you've beaten the voice inside?
I felt that way this year: I felt a sense of peace and freedom in the willingness to admit that I am powerless over this particular disease. There's freedom there: becoming willing to do it the way I've been advised, to take some direction.
But isn't the voice in your head the real problem? Isn't it the voice forcing you to reach for the bottle?
Exactly. Drugs and alcohol are merely a symptom.
Then why pursue such an anxiety-ridden profession?
I started so young that it was a fix for me in the beginning. It filled me up. It got me out of school, which no kid likes. I didn't feel comfortable in school. It was pressure; there were other kids who were doing well, so it brought out a lot of competitiveness and jealousy in me. Show business got me out of there and put me on the road, so it was an escape. That's what I'm addicted to: escape. I'm addicted to not feeling uncomfortable. Some people can ride these waves, but without awareness and at that age, you'll use anything. I did what naturally transpired - I had a mother [casting director Mary Jo Slater] who was in the business, a father [Michael Hawkins] who was an actor I looked up to and admired, and I fell in. I was literally discovered as a cute little kid. I've been a guy who's been in reaction to life, never really in action. It's always been happening around me and I kind of get caught up in it. Here I am, an actor who's never been comfortable or willing to take any direction. Just never. My disease has been in charge, in my opinion, of every decision I make.
And what you have concluded is ...?
The danger for me is deciding that I can run the show here. Because I can't. It's too much for me. That's just the A, B and C's of me, baby.
When you got in police trouble back in 1989, you said that your mother accused you of being a fuck-up like your father.
Dear God. Boy. Let me just hug that kid. I just don't feel right today about things I said years ago, particularly regarding my mother.
And your father?
I'm sad about the pain my father feels. He says he's a happy man - but it's not my definition of happiness. The saddest thing about me is, I've been so hard on myself that it's caused me and a lot of other people a lot of pain. I've never been able to take myself lightly. That's what I'd like to do: to have a laugh at myself.
The split-up of your parents when you were five - that didn't help.
Other kids have gone through difficult family scenarios and didn't get arrested four times. The beast manifests itself in many ways. I have a lot to be grateful for: that nobody was killed or seriously hurt.
You said earlier that your first experience with rehab didn't work for you. Can you elaborate?
What happened is, I made other things a priority. I left to go back to work. I managed to stay sober on the job, but when I came back to Los Angeles after finishing the job, I met a woman [Nina Huang], and for the next five and a half years I pretty much focused on the drama and the intensity of that relationship. And that kept me sober. And when that ended, I was heartbroken and went back to my original solution - which had given me peace at the age of nine - which was champagne. That's what I started off again with.
So you really needed a good slap in the back of your head?
Yeah. People were starting to say to me, "There's definitely a problem." At first I was just a fun guy, but then it started to get uglier and uglier. When I had made the decision that I was going to drink again, I told someone I was very close with that I was going to be smart about it this time. I was going to hire a bodyguard and chauffeur and I'd be covered. He looked at me and said, "A normal person doesn't think this way in order to go out and have a night on the town." What I did was, I would rent a car and a driver. I didn't hire a bodyguard, but I got a close friend to go out with me all the time who would not get quite as crocked as I would.
Where did you go when you went out?
Wherever there was a lot of noise. Then I'd hide in a corner and isolate, shut down, not deal with anything but still feel I'm in some kind of social setting. My pattern was to find a corner someplace, put a lot of walls up, because I didn't want anybody getting too close to me.
When you speak about things getting uglier, what specifically are you talking about?
Pitiful, incomprehensible demoralization. My examples have all been publicized: dealing with a disease which wants to kill me; finding myself in a position that night, as a result of having no self to esteem, of attempting to commit suicide; almost dying three different times in that one night alone!
And how different is it now?
The Dalai Lama said, "My religion is kindness." Let that be my religion. If I can choose a religion, kindness is the way to go. It doesn't need to be any more complicated than that.
Do you like living alone?
I go back and forth. It's just human nature to want to be with somebody. I have the desire to procreate. I'd like to have a family, to be a good father, a good husband. To be good to myself.
Is there a particular woman in your life now?
There are women in my life, friends, which is great. I never really had any female friends before, so I'm real grateful that the boundaries have been set in that respect. I'm not romantically involved.
What about the palimony suit that Nina Huang threw at you? It was resolved out of court, but how did you take it?
I'm not dead to feelings. It hurt. Heartbroken. Confused. Possessing no awareness of what was going on. But I set myself up for it. It's like wanting something to be your way and it just doesn't go your way.
Do you still feel empty inside?
No, I've spent the last year working diligently on a daily basis to do as many things as I can to absorb what this program has to offer, to give back as much as I can. To be of service.
In what ways are you of service?
Several ways. Sharing my experiences wherever I'm requested to go. I go to juvenile halls, talk to kids. Sometimes it's hard to get through all the stuff that precedes me when I come into a room. But the truth has a certain ring to it, and when you share it, people can hear it.
But how do you get around a troubled kid saying, "Hey, man, you may have fucked up, but you're still a movie star, still driving a nice car. It ain't so bad to fuck up."
I do have that: I am a movie star. But it doesn't matter. The message that I carry is, you can be living in a palace or in the gutter, this disease still wants to kill ya any way it can. It will cause havoc throughout your life and the lives of people who you care about. There are people who have had it all and who have died. Chris Farley was a friend of mine, and he died. I've come very close to dying. I can share my experience - that all of this stuff was sheared away from me. It didn't really matter that I was Christian Slater, movie star. I still made a mistake and had to deal with the consequences.
Any desire to drink?
No. I'm grateful that that obsession has been lifted. My disease manifests itself in other ways. I'll obsess on my career or on women. Then I get into that state of mind where it's all about my ego. It's all fear-based stuff, self-centered fear. It all stems from there: I'm gonna lose something that I have or not get something that I want. It's putting my priorities in that area rather than dealing with the source.
Have you been diagnosed with having any type of depressive personality that you might need prescription drugs for?
I just spent the last year in intensive analysis by professionals and was not diagnosed as a manic depressive or with any of those tendencies. I've sat in group therapies, I've been a willing participant.
How do you feel reading stories about yourself based on interviews you've given?
I pretty much do not like the guy I read about. I'm trying to live up to a projected image. I'm giving out what I think the world wants.
What do you think the world wants from you now?
My life has been tabloid fodder, something to distract people from their own lives. I'm guilty of using things outside of me to distract me from whatever pains I'm feeling, and I've provided that for others. I really don't want to continue to play that role. Because who I am is ... [reads from a page on the kitchen-cupboard door] ... I'm goodness, mercy, compassion, understanding.... I'm all these things. Because I got that voice in my head that tells me I suck, so I need other information to put in there. I need billboards, I need signs. That's just the nature of the beast I happen to have.
Has it been very uncomfortable for you to talk about what we've been talking about?
Yeah. It doesn't feel good. I'm happy about certain things we've talked about; I'm happy about where I am today, but I also feel scared, nervous, uncomfortable, ashamed.
Since we started talking, how many times have you felt like bolting?
Three, four times.
What scares you the most right now?
God, what scares me the most? Slipping back into old behavior. Being too hard on myself. I'm scared that I'll need things to be perfect. Losing contact with the spiritual side of this deal.
How do you reconcile spirituality with fame and celebrity?
Being a movie star is playing a role. It's not me. But the beautiful thing for me is that in the last year, I've taken care of what my real needs are, which are being honest and standing up for myself. Which is something from birth I was never able to do. I would get these natural feelings of jealousy and competitiveness and feel that they were inappropriate and that normal people didn't have dark, nasty thoughts.
Speaking of dark and nasty, that's how some critics describe your new movie, "Very Bad Things," in which you take part in a Vegas bachelor party that goes murderously wrong. What appealed to you about the film?
Peter Berg, the director, gave me his script, and I loved it. I see it as a black comedy. It's very dark, sick, risky. The reason the movie works for me is that my character, Boyd, tells these guys it's all going to be fine, but then during the course of the movie you see how when you try and cover something up it's going to blow up in your face. It's a bachelor party, Vegas, there's a hooker there, there's drugs, booze, all the elements that lead to disaster. I know about this. I've been there, I've seen it,I've lived it. I mean, I wasn't stabbing people with corkscrews, as my character does, but definitely there were similarities. This guy was the dark side of me. I got to play that character, and then I got to go back to my trailer and I didn't have to be that guy.
You're a co-executive producer of "Very Bad Things" - did you give the director any input in the editing process?
Peter Berg is so talented; I didn't have to do a thing other than my job, which was acting. In my past, I had this notion that I had to do everybody else's job. Because I was the movie star, with experience. The bottom line is: I don't know shit. I just need to get out of the way.
This is a movie of individual crackups, where each guy will suffer the consequences of his deception.
The karmic payback.
Right. Have you ever faced a moral decision in your life along the lines of what these guys have to face?
Yeah, I've been in situations where I've had to make choices - just deciding whether to tell the truth and come clean about things when others were trying to convince me otherwise. I got tired of creating stories; it just got too exhausting. It was so agonizingly painful to come up with one more story. I can't do it anymore. I have told so many lies - big, medium, minuscule - and it's gotten me in so much trouble that my conscience won't allow me to do it anymore.
In the past you've said it was difficult for you to communicate with other actors. Why?
Ego. Very simple. It's comparing myself with what other people have. It's not being satisfied or happy with all the things that I have. It's feeling I'm inadequate in some way. And that makes it difficult to communicate with anybody.
You grew up trying to be the image of Jack Nicholson. Did that fuck you up?
It's all been about looking for my identity. Nicholson's the greatest actor of our time. He's like the Michael Jordan of show business. Do I want to live his lifestyle? No. To be him? No. I want to be me, that's all. My role models today are not the people that I see in the movies. They're the people who I deal with on a daily basis who I've gotten to know in the past year, the ones who are doing the same thing that I'm interested in doing, which is recovering from a seemingly hopeless, killer disease.
You acknowledged once that acting provides you with a great excuse for behaving like a total asshole.
If my belief system was telling me that, then I was going to behave like an asshole. I had to scrap that. I also had the belief system that I had to suffer for my art. I would go to work and create drama and strife so I could feel like I was really a part of the work, especially if it wasn't difficult and grueling. I had to change that as well. Because who wants to work with somebody with that belief system?
Which three of your films would help people understand who you are?
Pump Up the Volume, Untamed Heart, Very Bad Things. The happiest movie I did in the last eight years was Untamed Heart. I did latch on to that identity [a shy busboy], and I was peaceful. Not that I necessarily have to be that guy, but I got a glimmer, a taste of what it's like to have some peace, to not act like the idiot. And I recently watched Pump Up the Volume again - I loved it. At the time I was making it, I couldn't relate to it at all. I just thought it was kind of a goofy high school movie. But it expresses a lot of the feelings that I have today.
So of this Slater-movie marathon, which film would you show last?
Let's watch Pump Up the Volume last, because I'm young, energetic and I don't die. They haven't killed me yet - still alive.
Maybe that's a good title for this piece.
"Still Alive." Yeah, that's good. Or "The Cat's Out of the Bag." •
LAWRENCE GROBEL, who profiled Al Pacino in RS 414, has returned to the fold for this interview.